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Learning to sprout through courtyard

As part of a unique lesson blending math, reading and other topics, Julie Rhoads lifted the cardboard egg carton over her head.

“Whoa!” said the group of first-graders surrounding her as they noticed pale tendrils shooting out of the bottom and a springy tuft of green sprouting from the top.

Rhoads, a math specialist at Hampton Oaks Elementary School, placed the egg carton in a raised bed bordering the building.

“What will these seeds need to keep growing?” she asked.

“They need water and sunlight,” said a girl in a Hello Kitty hat.

“And what else?” Rhoads asked.

The girl’s classmates chimed in with, “Soil and air.”

They each took a plastic spoon and scooped dirt over the carton, talking to each other about how it will disintegrate into the loamy soil.

Then Rhoads sent them to the nearby sidewalk with chalk and a math problem about turnip seeds.

“Be sure to show me your thinking on the sidewalk,” she reminded the students.

Later, she will use the turnip plants as a metaphor for the importance of sharing not just the answer but also the process to find it.

Rhoads lifted a 2-liter plastic bottle with the top cut off. Through the clear plastic, students could glimpse the roots and shaft of the turnip seedlings. Rhoads told them that while the turnips grow in the garden, students will only get to see the tops of the plant and not the root vegetables as they grow underground. But in the plastic bottle, they’ll get to watch what’s going on underground.

“So you can see what’s happening under the ground,” Rhoads said. “Just like we like to see what’s happening in your ”

“… Brains!” the kids finish for her.

The metaphor is just one of many benefits that Hampton Oaks educators hope the turnip planting will provide. Each grade planted turnips last week in raised beds provided by the Home Depot in one of the school’s courtyards.

In another courtyard, the Stafford County school’s Parent–Teacher Organization recently spruced up grounds and added picnic tables, hoping to provide teachers a place to relax outside the crowded schools.

But this courtyard provides an outdoor classroom for the teachers—and they’re excited about possibilities. For their first foray into gardening, the school staff chose turnips.

The pale root vegetable shows up in the book “Tops and Bottoms” all of the students are reading this year. Reading specialist Vickie Clinehens said having every student read the same book provides a shared experience for the children, which is especially important in a school like Hampton Oaks, where one-quarter of students receive free and reduced lunches and nearly half are minorities.

“Our kids have really varied backgrounds,” Clinehens said. “So we’re trying to give them a shared experience they can grow from.”

And she chose “Tops and Bottoms” because it sends a message of hope to students in impoverished families. The story follows a family of rabbits as they try to get enough food to eat. Throughout the book, perseverance and ingenuity help the rabbits reap the rewards of hard work.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it’s all about using your brains,” Clinehens said.

However, many students got tripped up by one word in the book: Turnip.

“Every time we read it, they look at me like I’m from outer space,” she said. “They don’t even know how to say it.”

Rhoads wanted a gardening experience to give kids a hands-on math lesson. By mixing turnip-planting with the story, the specialists ended up with a lesson that blended math, reading, social studies and science.

But when it came to planting, turnips were chosen for reasons both literary and down-to-earth. They are planted in the fall, grow in winter and get harvested in early spring.

“The growth cycle fit perfectly with our school calendar,” Principal Daria Groover said.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973